Illegal drugs should be decriminalized, Waterloo Region Crime Prevention Council members say – Waterloo Region Record

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WATERLOO REGION — Major changes need to happen in the court, police and local government systems to help reduce harm caused by drug use and drug poisonings, members of the Waterloo Region Crime Prevention Council say.
The members made their comments Wednesday during a webinar on the council’s endorsement of legalizing all drugs, with strict regulation.
All drugs should be treated similarly to marijuana, tobacco and alcohol, the council says.
“The issue is so much more complex than what our government has led us to believe,” said outreach worker Sara Escobar.
“They simplified it and dumbed it down so that they could make easy choices … why people use drugs is so complex, and it cannot be simply defined by ‘you use drugs, they’re illegal, you go to jail.’”
Those working with the region’s most vulnerable say the region is in a health crisis of addiction and drug poisoning that can’t be ignored.
Locally, deaths from drug poisoning climbed from 105 in 2019 to 145 in 2020 and 158 last year.
“It’s still a crisis without any adults in charge, that has not changed,” said drug strategist Michael Parkinson. “There’s not the same kind of leadership or proportional response that we would see with COVID, H1N1, SARS, food safety and all that kind of stuff despite the cost, human and financial.”
Speakers said a recent proposal by the Region of Waterloo to create a street outreach team that included paramedics to deal with encampments did not consider the relationship that exists between those experiencing homelessness and addiction, and people in uniform.
The region pulled back the report for more consultation.
“For many people who are using substances, maybe living in encampments, there’s a history of trauma, abuse, neglect and not a lot of trust in people who wear uniforms,” Parkinson said.
Research by the crime prevention council has shown that people would rather use drugs alone even though it’s more dangerous, or not call police when they witness someone overdose because they’re afraid.
People who use drugs are also far more likely to be victimized and far less likely to report it, prevention council research has found. Participants in a 2020 survey said fulfilling their addiction made them more vulnerable to violence or sex trafficking. Of the 43 people surveyed, 91 per cent had been victimized.
Eighty-six per cent of those crimes went unreported.
That stems from drug use being criminalized.
“That means that everything they do all day is criminal, that’s all they are, that’s all people see … that is not how you help people heal,” Escobar said.
Ruth Cameron is executive director of the AIDS Association of Cambridge, Kitchener, Waterloo and Area (AACKWA.)
Cameron said the region’s proposal to fund the outreach team from its equity account rather than homelessness and housing budgets pits grassroots organizations against each other.
“In reaching into the equity fund what in fact happens is a pitting of all different equity seeking groups and the attended issues, that aren’t an inherent part of the community but have been created by white supremacy, against each other and that’s the opposite of equity,” Cameron said.
Part of the argument for legalization and regulation is that 100 years of prohibition have proven to be ineffective. Sending people to prison has not stopped them from using drugs. The 2020 survey showed the average number of incarcerations was 12.
Waterloo Region has the sixth highest rate of opioid-related offences in Canada and the second highest in Ontario, according to a February report to the prevention council. Most of those are for possession.
“These carceral approaches where police either lead or are at the table for every social, community and health service collaboration, coalition or intervention in our region and carceral approaches … are not the way forward in promoting the safety, equity and solidarity of people who use substances,” Cameron said.
Jude Oudshoorn said the war on drugs has really been a war on people that disproportionately impacts those who are Black, Indigenous and people of colour.
“It’s really important that (people) understand that component, that the harms are endless here and the harms continue to exacerbate themselves,” he said.
He outlined research showing that in Ontario nearly one in 15 Black men aged 18 to 34 will be incarcerated in their lifetime, compared to one in 71 white men in the same age group.
Twenty-one per cent of incarcerated youth are Black males and 15 per cent are Indigenous, according to the John Howard Society in 2021.
Crime prevention council members will appear before Region of Waterloo council this week to discuss endorsement of legalization with strict regulation.
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